The Value of Norouz – A 3000-year old festival of rebirth

Today marks the first day of Norouz (also spelt Norooz, Nawruz, Nowruz), the Iranian and Central Asian New Year, which has been celebrated for millenia. Now, more than ever, we need to treasure this ancient celebration of renewal. Here is my article on this celebration, together with some photos I have taken from Iran.

Lentil sprouts and hyacinths at a roadside stall in Tehran, Iran

In Iran, poetry remains an important and relevant part of cultural life and is a ubiquitous part of the Norouz festival. The patron poet of Norouz is the 14th century mystic “safe-keeper” Hafez, who was described by Ralph Waldo Emerson as “a poet for poets”. Hafez often used wine as a metaphor for love, and during Norouz a book of his poems often has a prominent place on the Haft-seen (the tabletop arrangement of symbolic items). Indeed his words in verse have never seemed more apt.

Whether raising themes of love and devotion “The sun never says to the earth ‘you owe me’. Look what happens with a love like that… it lights up the whole sky” or a message of hope “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being”, his philosophy of the spirit of love underlines the value of Norouz, a celebration of renewal which has spanned countless nationalities and religions and is a vestige of a primordial harmony which seems increasingly besieged in today’s world.

Norouz itself literally means “New Day” and coincides with the arrival of spring. It is celebrated on the same day as the pagan festival Ostara, and the roots of Norouz lie in ancient Iranian religions such as Zoroastrianism and Mitraism. The festival is likely to have been arisen in the Achaemenid era (The sixth century BC), and it is a testament to its cultural importance that it has endured such longevity over three millenia. It is a public holiday in thirteen countries, and is also celebrated worldwide by the diaspora from those countries, together with Kurds, Parsis and followers of the Baha’i faith. In Iran, the celebration is largely frowned upon by the ruling clerics. As it predates Islam by over a millennium, Norouz is seen by many in the theocratic regime as a pagan ritual.

Decorated eggs at a roadside shop in Tehran, Iran

Norouz is a time for family and friendship. In most homes, the beginning of the festival comprises an intense period of spring-cleaning and preparation for feasts and exchange of gifts. People are expected to pay house visits to each other and check on each others’ health, meaning that an endless supply of pastry, cookies, nuts and fruits are required. The spirit of reconciliation also means that this is a time to heal wounds new and old, and the practice of holding grudges during this period is considered a bad omen.

A central component of Norouz is the Haft-Seen table spread, with items chosen which each symbolise a particular theme:

A simple norouz haftsin for a family home

The core tenets of the haft-seen are literally seven (haft) S’s (words which begin with S) and are: Sabzeh, a lentil sprouts growing in a dish, representing rebirth. Samanu, a sweet wheatgerm-derived pudding representing wealth and abudance. Senjed, a dried Persian olive which represents love. Seer, garlic which represents good health. Seeb, an apple which represents virality. Sumac, which represents sunrise or the victory of light over dark and Serkeh, vinegar, which represents patients and wisdom.

Alongside these core components, other common items include a mirror with two candles, the poetry book of Hafez or the Shanmaheh, a holy book such as the Quran, Avesta, Bible or Torah, painted eggs, a bowl of water with a goldfish, a hyacinth and various other sweets. In addition, it is not uncommon for each home to introduce their own take, with items that are important for them.

Sprouts and hyacinths in bunny pots

The celebrations last thirteen days, and on the last day an extra celebration known as Sizdah Bedar (literally thirteenth outdoors) happens whereby families and friends spend all day outdoors in nature, and childrens’ play, music and dancing takes place. Traditionally, the leaves of the greenery are tied with a whisper by young singletons expressing a wish to find a partner, and then they are discarded.

A Half-Seen in the State Dining Room of George W. Bush’s White House, 2008 (TOP PHOTO). A spread from Secretary of State John Kerry’s office in 2015 (BOTTOM PHOTO)

Regardless of the ceremonies in Norouz, its themes are universal. In a world where anger and fear seems to be increasingly prospering over love and hope, let us find some optimism in this transcendental celebration of new possibilities and new life which has not only survived, but prospered, through the centuries.


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